One of the first lessons the Buddha ever taught is the impermanence (anicca) of things, but the tectonic shifts we are witnessing today may still leave us feeling unprepared. Only a decade ago, after all, nobody could have predicted that our democracy would be fighting for its life, or that xenophobic ethno-states would threaten the global order. But even these astonishing developments look almost trivial alongside a worldwide pandemic that has probably claimed the life of somebody you know. And if that’s not enough, we can already see an approaching ecocatastrophe right out of science fiction.
With so much threatening to fall apart, it’s deeply reassuring to think of the dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, as what the poet T. S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world,” unchanging while events spin out of control. And the dharma is definitely that—in a certain sense. Every morning at our sangha’s retreats, we recite the Verses on the Trusting Mind (Xinxin ming), a Zen classic urging us to let go of “thought, reason, knowledge, and imagination.” When we follow that advice, meditation can take to us to a place where “yesterday, tomorrow, and today” disappear, at least for a while. From there we can look back at the “ten thousand things,” no longer troubled by attachments and fears that seemed overwhelming just an hour ago. Yet the Verses text concludes without explaining how we should actually connect the two—the still point on the cushion and the spectacle of the 45th president tweeting insults at witnesses as they testify to Congress.
It’s true that meditation can deconstruct our familiar experience of temporality, but even the Buddha never stayed long in that unmoving state. Instead, he reentered the “three worlds of time”—past, present, and future—in order to help us as we struggle to control the flow of events in the way that humans do, by erecting structures of ideas that seem enduring until they’re not. Because all events are unforeseen to a degree and many of them are beyond control, those structures of ideas are bound to crack and give, so that no one can reliably predict where we’ll wind up a few years from now. Observing this failure throughout history, we Zen people like to believe that we can be done with ideas for good. “Don’t mistake the finger for the moon,” we say. “Don’t confuse the concept with the thing itself.” But you still need a finger to point at the moon when somebody doesn’t see it, and “moon” is an idea, too. No, we can’t dispense with ideas, but we can learn to put them into motion.
Putting ideas into motion doesn’t mean starting from scratch or clinging to the past; it means charting a middle path between permanence and change. Consider that the Pali canon contains about ten thousand suttas, large and small—discourses of the Buddha collected over four centuries in a library of fifty or sixty books. And impressive as that number seems, the Pali canon looks decidedly spare beside its Chinese counterpart. To the Agamas, Sanskrit scriptures that match the Pali suttas more or less, the Chinese add all the Mahayana texts, some composed hundreds of years after the Buddha had passed away. As for the Tibetans, they found several volumes more when they assembled their Kangyur. A mountain of sutras piled high certainly suggests some kind of permanence. But taken together, they also record a millennium of constant innovation.
As for the perennial question of what the Buddha “really taught,” the only solution would appear to involve jumping into a time machine that could whisk us back to Vulture Peak around 500 BCE, where, if we’ve studied the native tongue, we might listen in with our own ears. Then we could discard the twenty-five centuries between us and this ancient revelation of the truth. Yet we could also look back at everything that Buddhists have said and done after that as, on balance, an enormous gain rather than a loss. Taking the longer view, we can observe an evolving tradition that has remained remarkably humane, inclusive, and adaptable. Burdened at times by its own success, misconstrued by supporters and attacked by foes, exploited for gain, imitated cynically, and on occasion brutally repressed even as it sometimes sanctioned repression, the dharma has had to evolve or disappear, like all systems, cultural or biological. But in order to survive, let alone change and grow, Buddhism also had to embrace Zen Master’s Linji’s wise advice long before Linji himself arrived on the scene in the 9th century: “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.” Killing the idea of “the Buddha”—the idea of one revelation, over and done—freed his followers to confront an unbroken series of new challenges. And with the idea of “the Buddha” gone, our intrinsic buddhanature took its place. After that, the dharma could travel anywhere in its mission to liberate sentient beings.
I’ll admit that this argument raises red flags, and the reddest is probably how we regard the hallmark event of the Buddha’s life, his enlightenment. The Pali suttas make it clear that crossing over to the “other shore” took Siddhartha somewhere outside time and space, language, and even consciousness as we know it. When the suttas describe his awakened state as “deathless,” “without remainder,” and “unborn,” they imply that his insight had become complete and unsurpassed. And from this interpretation, we can easily infer that his teachings must be finished, too, not subject to evolutionary change.
Yet in certain places the suttas complicate any such finality. A famous passage from the Samyutta Nikaya relates the moment when the Buddha, taking up some leaves from a simsapa or rosewood tree, asks rhetorically, “What do you think, monks: Which are more numerous, the few simsapa leaves in my hand or those overhead in the simsapa forest? . . . In the same way, monks, those things that I have known with direct knowledge but have not taught are far more numerous” (SN 56.31). The Buddha held back, he goes on to say, in order to focus on the basics, but he still left a lot for us to learn. And his followers woke up in a variety of ways that introduced fresh perspectives as well. This ongoing process of discovery would explain why we have so many sutras now, and why the authors of those sutras must have felt unashamed when they put new words in the Buddha’s mouth. They must have seen the dharma as a project that would lead later generations into terrains unimagined by the World Honored One. Yes, he turned the dharma wheel, but it would need to turn again without him.
This brings us, though, to the second red flag, the person of the Buddha. For his followers, he has remained absolutely indispensable. Over the centuries we’ve devised countless epithets to convey his unrivaled importance: Bhagavanlokanatha (“World Honored One”); Tathagata (“gone to the other shore”); Samyak-sambuddha (“completely awake”); and Shasta deva-manushyanam (“teacher of the gods and humankind”). The disciple Sariputta spoke quite movingly when he compared the Buddha to a gatekeeper, vigilant in guiding through all those searching for enlightenment:
So I came once to the Blessed Lord to listen to Dhamma. And the Blessed Lord taught me Dhamma most excellently and perfectly, contrasting the dark with the light. And as he did so, I gained insight into that Dhamma, and from among the various things I established one in particular, which was serene confidence in the Teacher, that the Blessed Lord is a fully enlightened Buddha, that the Dhamma is well taught by the Blessed Lord, and that the order of monks is well trained.
(Sampasadaniya Sutta, DN 28)
–Trans. Maurice Walshe
When Sariputta tried to identify which of the Blessed Lord’s many qualities he found to be most enabling, he decided on the Buddha’s ability to inspire “serene confidence” in the person of the Teacher himself. For his followers, many suttas suggest, this personal bond made all the difference.
But then the Buddha died.
The Maha-parinibbana Sutta (DN 16) records that just before the Buddha passed away, a sense of irreparable loss overwhelmed even the “earthly minded” of the gods, and it tells us that Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and closest confidante, sobbed against a door jamb. Because so much depended on the Buddha’s being there day and night for the forty-five years of his teaching career, his departure made it seem as though the world had ended. Now, with the death of the One Who Liberates, his followers would have to liberate themselves, but unlike the Buddha, they couldn’t set forth with his certainty. That was their dilemma; it’s ours as well, and the problem that Linji wanted us to face.
This is not the conclusion that some followers reached, however. Instead, they revered the suttas as the Teacher himself, and the Buddha seems to support this view in the Maha-parinibbana. “It may be,” he announces just before he dies, “that to some among you the thought will come: ‘Ended is the word of the Master; we have a Master no longer.’ But it should not, Ananda, be so considered. For that which I have proclaimed and made known as the Dhamma and the Discipline, that shall be your Master when I am gone.” (trans. Sister Vajira and Francis Story).
Had the sutta ended then and there, we could lay to rest the whole matter; but the text continues with some curious details. Despite what the Buddha himself decrees, the neighboring communities still clamor to see their dead master in the flesh. The Mallas, one of the major clans, insist on paying homage to his corpse “with dance, song, music, flower garlands, and perfume.” After erecting colorful canopies and temporary pavilions, they spend the whole day serenading him until, as night arrives, they decide that it’s too late for the cremation. But when the morning comes, the festivities resume, as they do on the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth days. On the seventh day, when the Mallas prepare to take the body to the cremation ground, they discover that they can’t lift it up no matter how many lend a hand. It seems that the gods have intervened, instructing them first to bear the Buddha’s body through the town of Kusinara to give all the people an opportunity to pay their last respects. Only with that labor completed do the Mallas reach the charnel ground, where Ananda stipulates that they prepare the Buddha as they would the body of a universal monarch, swathed head to toe in layers of fine cloth.
In its final pages, we could say, the sutta depicts two different paths: one a Buddhism of the streets—practiced mostly by lay believers—the other a cloistered dharma centered on the canon. And nothing the Buddha said or did prepared his followers for this parting of the ways. At first, the solution must have seemed clear: monks and nuns would keep the dharma alive while lay devotees supported them with alms. Yet the canon that those monks and nuns depended on could prove unreliable. Though Sariputta often stood at the Buddha’s side, he had to ask Maha-Kassapa to help him make sense of one of the Buddha’s key teachings (SN 16.12). And while the whole sangha praised Ananda as the “guardian” of the dharma, the Buddha still rebuked him from time to time when he failed to get the point (MN 122).
But the two disciples weren’t really at fault: much of the trouble comes from language itself. Since even a World Honored One communicates in words, and since words never quite mirror things as they are, the record of any teaching has to contain all kinds of ambiguities. The problem, though, goes even deeper than that. On paper, palm leaves, or birchbark scrolls, sutras look permanent indeed, but their meanings can exist nowhere but in us, and since we never cease to change, the same must hold true of the dharma.
To the notion of the dharma’s mutability the Buddha himself assents here and there in the Pali texts. At several places, he foresees that the dharma could vanish if his followers jettison meditation, morality, and respect for the suttas, or if they follow a “counterfeit” path (SN 16.13, AN 5.156). Elsewhere, he assigns the dharma a lifespan of five hundred years (AN 8.51). Today it may seem unwise for us to read too much into a few stray remarks, possibly offered as hypotheticals and not as prophecy. But on this foundation, later Buddhists raised a widely accepted chronology involving successive “dharma ages” leading to Buddhism’s disappearance as the mass of humankind degenerates.
The idea of a “dharma-ending age” may have caught on because it warned of what would result if Buddhists couldn’t reconcile the diverging paths first hinted at in the Maha-parinibbana. Just as lay Buddhists in the sutta engage in rituals of their own devising, so their descendants wandered further away from the early “Dhamma and Discipline.” At the same time, behind temple walls, monastics who saw themselves as the sole heirs to a changeless legacy may have watched the goings-on with a jaundiced eye.
Luckily, a third group—mostly monks and nuns—put that tension front and center, probably from Buddhism’s earliest days. Rejecting the choice between tradition and change, they began to interweave the two. This dialectic shuttled back and forth, replenishing the dharma with a steady stream of transformative discoveries, some made on the meditation mat by practitioners, some by thinkers at the great monastic universities, and some by millions of lay Buddhists caught up in the rough-and-tumble of everyday life. From this dialectical process arose what came to be called the Mahayana. But to keep the dialectic going, something had to change: the teachings needed to be dusted off and brought back into human time.
One Mahayana scripture in particular takes this retrieval as its mission, and it’s also entitled, a bit confusingly, the Mahaparinirvana Sutra—the Nirvana Sutra for short. The sutra—in Sanskrit, not Pali this time—appeared about four or five centuries after its predecessor, covering some of the same ground but taking a radically different tack. The story opens with a procession of beings who, bearing gifts, come to implore the ailing Buddha not to pass away. The entourage includes bodhisattvas, kings and consorts, gods and goddesses, naga lords and their naga queens—the whole Mahayana menagerie—all aware, as the sutra says many times, that the arrival of a buddha on this earth is as rare as the udumbara flower, which takes three thousand years to blossom.
In each case, though, the Buddha refuses what they bring, and then, dejected, they turn away, terrified by the prospect of his death. They’re hoping to prolong the status quo with the Buddha as the sangha’s head, but he keeps pushing back against this fantasy. Nobody seems to get the point, not even the devoted layman Cunda, who completely falls apart. “How can I not cry?” he laments. “This is terrible, distressing! The world will be empty. All I ask, World Honored One, is that you take pity on us here. … Do not pass into parinirvana!” (Trans. Mark L. Blum).
In reply, the Buddha says, “I have pity for you [Cunda, and] indeed for everyone. That is precisely why I am now about to enter nirvana”—to show that impermanence is also in “the nature of buddhas.” The Buddha tells him, in other words, that only by dying can he help his followers, who can learn from the Buddha’s equanimity how to face their own departures. But the larger problem, he wants Cunda to see, isn’t the Buddha’s impermanence. It’s the fact that his followers have confused the World Honored One, who must “pass away,” with enlightenment itself.
As the Buddha prepares for his end, we might expect him to repeat the tenets of his faith a final time, as he does in the older Pali text: the four noble truths, the eightfold path, and the seven factors of enlightenment. But instead, he throws out everything. He even reverses what many regard as the dharma’s single most important claim—the impermanence of the self—by declaring that a self exists and that it is actually eternal. Although one important Buddhist school argued for a provisional self, called the pudgala, or “person,” most Buddhists would have found the argument here totally unacceptable. But no sooner does the Buddha introduce the idea than he insists that both alternatives—“self ” and “no-self ” equally—should be regarded as “medicine,” skillful means used to alleviate suffering under constantly changing conditions. The Buddha cautions that attachment to these beliefs or any others will prevent his followers from noticing that one thing always remains the same:
This body of the Tathagata [that you see now] is only a transformational body, it is not a body nourished by any sort of food. It is in order to save living beings that . . . I demonstrate the abandonment of this form and the entry into nirvana. [But] you should understand the [real] Buddha to be a permanently abiding dharma, an immutable dharma.
The many traces of the Buddha’s presence here on earth he reveals to be his “transformational body”—a display created through his activity in the realm of form, like a movie that keeps its audience entranced until the final credits. But transformational bodies come and go, while the actual Enlightened One preceded Siddhartha Gautama’s birth and will remain after he departs. Not a person but a state of mind that we can access at the very heart of consciousness, this buddhanature is described in the sutra as “formless, birthless, deathless, and without boundary.”
Then the Nirvana Sutra goes on to explain that the “other shore” isn’t somewhere else but always here with us. As the Buddha himself announces, “All sentient beings everywhere originally possess the buddhanature; [that nature] exists eternally and is without change,” even though Gautama the person grew old, grew ill, and finally died. We’re left, then, with something even more precious than the Buddha’s brief existence on this earth—access to the source of his wisdom.
At first, this appears to tie up the loose ends, and so we might wonder why the sutra rolls on for many hundreds of pages more. But the unveiling of buddhanature creates an even bigger problem than the Buddha’s death: precisely because it exists outside of time, buddhanature would also seem to lie beyond the reach of mortals like you and me, jolted over and over by events of the kind we are witnessing right now. No less a person than Eihei Dogen, the 13th-century founder of the Japanese Soto school of Zen, struggled with this question when he first made a careful study of the sutra, and it became a koan that he couldn’t pass through no matter how hard he tried. Then, by some accounts, the knot untied itself once he heard his Chinese mentor tell a monk, “Let the body and mind drop away!” At that moment, I’m convinced, Dogen realized that “dropping away” meant he could experience everything as both eternal and transient.
It turns out that we can’t neatly separate our timeless buddhanature from our temporal lives. Instead, each moment, as it comes and goes, is also actually an eternal “now.” A person, Dogen tells us, who doesn’t understand might think about time in this mistaken manner: “For a while I was [a creature with] three heads and eight arms. [And then, for] a while I was an eight- or sixteen-foot body.” But the matter, Dogen says, is more complex:
Three heads and eight arms may be yesterday’s time. The eight- or sixteen-foot body may be today’s time. Yet yesterday and today are both in the moment when you directly enter the mountains and see thousands and myriads of peaks. Yesterday’s time and today’s time do not go away. . . . It looks as if they are far away, but they are here and now.
–“Uji” (Being-Time), Shobogenzo, trans. Dan Welch and Kazuaki Tanahashi
When we “enter the mountains,” time disappears. Then, immersed in deep meditation, we can see that we’ve never had anywhere to go or anything to do: there is only the perfection of this. But that doesn’t mean we can finally escape the dialectic set in motion by the Buddha’s death—the dialectic between the dharma we’ve received and our ongoing experience—because the time that passes is also real and never “goes away.” Yes, buddhanature exists eternally, but the dharma still evolves, and that will never stop. As the Buddha says again and again to followers unwilling to hear him, “I am always in parinirvana,” always dying and so always coming back to life. There will never be a “last word.”
But when we collapse the two into one—the timeless with our life in time—we break off the dialectic. Treating timebound ideas as eternal truth traps us in the past, like the mourners who can’t bid goodbye to the Buddha’s corpse. On the other hand, if we completely give up on our search for the timeless, the dharma just becomes another ideology, with no “still point” for an anchor. It’s crucial, then, that we appreciate what Dogen discovered: “enlightenment” isn’t a permanent state but the dynamic back-and-forth that we create with our intrinsic wisdom. And this was true even for the Buddha of history, Siddhartha Gautama.
When he returned from his awakening—always described as absolutely complete, anuttara-samyak-sambodhi (“unexcelled complete enlightenment”)—Siddhartha remained a home-leaver all the same, rising early to meditate, begging for his morning meal, teaching in the afternoon and evening, and finishing in meditation again. Dropping body and mind uninterruptedly, he never used the timeless to escape his life in time, even after his own family’s destruction in war. But maintaining the conjunction between time and timelessness required constant effort on his part, moment by moment and day by day.
Master Yunmen helps us see what Siddhartha’s effort concretely involved when he asks his students this question: “The world is vast and wide. [So] why do you put on your seven-piece robe at the sound of the bell?” (Mumonkan, Case 16). It’s obvious that the robes of monks and nuns prevent them from enjoying other possibilities—Allbirds Runners and denim flares, Topman jackets and skinny jeans. And at certain moments most Zen trainees wish that they could wear different clothes. Yet their robes will become the entire universe when, with the ringing of the bell, they return to deep samadhi.
Then, for some minutes or even hours, their here-and-now will exist timelessly, until the time that passes starts up again and the vast world contracts into a tight square right before their eyes. Yet this expansion and contraction is the way that buddhanature manifests itself to us. Every breakthrough opens to our view a new, breathtaking horizon, but every horizon leaves out some detail, and so our perfect practice goes on and on.
The World Honored One died long ago. But when we cultivate buddhanature now—sitting for hours on the cushion, reciting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, tugging at a sutra’s knot of words, or gliding through the stages of a tantric ritual—we’re readying ourselves for a buddha yet to come: Maitreya, whose name means “lovingkindness” or simply “friend.” Speaking only for myself, I would say that Maitreya’s special wisdom lies in never finally arriving. Indeed, he must not reach us, because impermanence is his true home, and it’s ours as well. So the hundred-plus volumes on the shelf can only take us half the way. An unknown number remain to be composed—by us and those who come later.
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